Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Working Your Way To Heaven

Q - Over the past few days, I’ve been reflecting on Christ’s Passion and Ressurection. I also reflected on how Catholics often get into arguments with non-Catholics about good works and salvation. We say they are necessary, non-Catholics often say that they are not (due to Christ’s Passion). I thought about how Christ took the punishment for our sins and saved us from evil. I began to wonder why good works were necessary for salvation if Christ has basically offered us all clean slates. Am I right in saying that we aren’t really “earning” our salvation, but instead (by avoiding evil and doing good) are keeping ourselves from rejecting it? Basically, Christ has offered us Heaven, and we work to keep from rejecting that offer, and not necessarily earning the rights to it? If that is correct, then what disagreement is there between Catholics and non-Catholics? If it’s not correct, then how should I be looking at it? 


A - Thanks for the question. Thinking deeply about salvation and grace is a very good thing. Let me first tell you what the Catholic Church teaches about salvation and good works:

The Catholic Church does not believe that faith alone is a complete view of salvation or justification, when faith is defined as merely an intellectual knowledge of Jesus. This is because an intellectual faith is an incomplete faith. But, most protestants do not define faith in this way. So, the common understanding of faith would include a definition that is closer to our understanding of faith, hope, and charity combined. So, in this difference of definitions is a great deal of our differences in how we understand salvation through faith and how works play a part.

The Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation issued a joint declaration on justification several years ago. This is one part of that declaration:
25.We confess together that sinners are justified by faith in the saving action of God in Christ. By the action of the Holy Spirit in baptism, they are granted the gift of salvation, which lays the basis for the whole Christian life. They place their trust in God's gracious promise by justifying faith, which includes hope in God and love for him. Such a faith is active in love and thus the Christian cannot and should not remain without works. But whatever in the justified precedes or follows the free gift of faith is neither the basis of justification nor merits it.
There are still some issues on this subject that divide, but this doctrine rejects faith alone, if it is a mere intellectual assent and affirms faith alone if it works out in hope and charity. This is why St. James rejects an intellectual faith alone when he says.
See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. - James 2:24
The Bible talks about the intimate connection between faith and works in many places. Here are some examples:
  • "What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well," but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead. Indeed someone might say, "You have faith and I have works." Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works." -James 2:14-18 
  • "Therefore, my beloved brothers, be firm, steadfast, always fully devoted to the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain." -1 Cor 15:58 
  • "For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love you have demonstrated for his name by having served and continuing to serve the holy ones." -Heb 6:10 
  • "Do you want proof, you ignoramus, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by the works." -James 2:20-22 
  • "For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father's glory, and then he will repay everyone according to his conduct." -Mt 16:27 
  • "The one who plants and the one who waters are equal, and each will receive wages in proportion to his labor." -1 Cor 3:8 
  • "Whatever you do, do from the heart, as for the Lord and not for others, knowing that you will receive from the Lord the due payment of the inheritance." -Col 3:23-24
Here is a quick summation of the doctrine on faith/works the Catholic Church teaches:
  1. We cannot work our way into heaven or salvation.
  2. We are saved by grace. Thus, the Council of Trent states: "We are said to be justified by grace because nothing that precedes justification, whether faith or works, merits the grace of justification. For 'if it is by grace, it is no longer by works; otherwise,' as the apostle says, 'grace is no more grace' [Rom. 11:6]" (Decree on Justification 8).
  3. Works and Faith need not be seen as an either/or issue. As CS Lewis once stated: "Regarding the debate about faith and works: It’s like asking which blade in a pair of scissors is most important."  
  4. The Catholic Church rejects the belief of "faith alone" if faith is not lived out. As St. James says, "faith without works is dead." -James 2:20
  5. Catholics and Protestants can agree that faith is absolutely necessary to salvation. We can also agree that works must be present for faith to be "alive". 
I hope this helps.

1 comment:

Spence Ohana said...

Great answer and explanation! I wish Protestants would understand this view of Catholicism.

I understand where the questioner was trying to go with "we work to keep from rejecting that offer, and not necessarily earning the rights to it". Problem is many Protestants believe that salvation/justification/sanctification are a one time deal, not an ongoing process through our life. Some of them believe if you reject the saving faith, then that shows you are a false convert and never truly believed in the true saving faith. They feel one can never loose their faith once you become born again. Catholic.com helps answer this:

"Certainly, Christ did die on the cross once for all and has entered into the holy place in heaven to appear before God on our behalf. Christ has abundantly provided for our salvation, but that does not mean that there is no process by which this is applied to us as individuals. Obviously, there is, or we would have been saved and justified from all eternity, with no need to repent or have faith or anything else. We would have been born "saved," with no need to be born again. Since we were not, since it is necessary for those who hear the gospel to repent and embrace it, there is a time at which we come to be reconciled to God."

and...

"Regarding the issue of whether Christians have an "absolute" assurance of salvation, regardless of their actions, consider this warning Paul gave: "See then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you too will be cut off" (Rom. 11:22; see also Heb. 10:26–29, 2 Pet. 2:20–21). "